Republican strategists wary of relying on a Republican National Committee beset by controversy are relying on third-party organizations to fund and manage crucial ground game operations for the midterm elections.
The situation is similar to Democratic maneuvering in 2006 to compensate for what was perceived as an inept and underfunded Democratic National Committee.
Four years ago, the chairmen of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — lacking confidence in then-DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy — collaborated to create their own get-out-the-vote operation from scratch, with the DSCC investing about $20 million alone in the endeavor.
This year, the shoe is on the other foot. Republicans are scrambling to replace support from an RNC that from 2002 to 2008 was the best-funded national party committee and offered GOP Congressional candidates access to the most advanced GOTV program available until President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign took field operations to another level.
Now, as the DCCC and DSCC are looking to reap the benefits of an Obama-run DNC — which has budgeted $50 million for the fall campaign, including $30 million on field operations and a combined $20 million cash injection to the two Democratic campaign committees, Republicans are relying in large part on third-party groups such as American Crossroads, a 527 with two former GOP campaign committee strategists at the helm and a former RNC chairman on its board.
“I have not heard one GOP operative or staff member who thinks that the RNC will have a dime for them,” said one Republican operative working on a Senate race. “In fact, we are setting up our own Victory Operation with the thought that there won’t be any money there at the end.”
The RNC, and its controversial Chairman Michael Steele, have taken fire for more than a year on several fronts.
Critics have charged Steele with cronyism and mismanaging the RNC to the point where its brand in Republican contributor circles — once the gold standard of national party committees — has sent major donors scurrying to the House and Senate party committees, causing a major drop-off in fundraising.
Steele has also taken heat for the perception that he has been more concerned with self-promotion than conducting the lower-profile, nuts-and-bolts work of getting Republicans elected to office usually expected of an RNC or DNC chairman. Additionally, the RNC’s credibility has suffered from scandals involving how the committee has spent its money and whether it has accurately reported its debt load.
But the RNC has been far from inactive during the 2010 cycle, and is actively attempting to aid Republican House and Senate candidates as well as those running for governor, state legislature and additional local offices.
The committee spent heavily in 2009 on gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia — key contests won by the GOP — while also investing in the January special election that sent Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to Washington, D.C. For the Nov. 2 elections, the RNC has opened 306 Victory offices across the country, including one in at least 46 out of the 52 House districts where a National Republican Congressional Committee Young Gun candidate is running.
Candidates included in the Young Guns program have the best chance of flipping a seat that is in Democratic hands, and the NRCC is privately pleased with this strategy for locating Victory offices. The RNC has already made around 7.8 million voter contacts, and last month transferred to $1.3 million to state and local Republican parties across the country, including to the Illinois GOP, which usually receives minimal help from the committee.
“When you look at what we’ve done substantively on the ground, we’re well ahead of where we were in 2008,” RNC spokesman Doug Heye said. “We’ve been transferring money to the state parties all year long.”
But many GOP operatives focused on the midterm campaign remain disappointed in the RNC’s performance and doubt it will provide adequate assistance to Republicans running for the House and Senate this fall. The NRSC in particular is expecting very little help from the RNC — at least none that would significantly affect the dozen Democratic-held seats the committee is targeting.
“The NRSC appreciates the money the RNC transferred last year and realizes they’re going to be funding victory centers,” said a source familiar with the committee’s strategy. “But it has planned its budget as though it is going it alone.”
Heye declined to disclose how much money the RNC has spent on the midterm elections thus far or how much it has budgeted for the fall campaign.
The RNC’s help won’t be as substantial as it was in 2006, when it spent $32.2 million alone on independent expenditure advertising, including transfers of more than $25 million to the NRCC for that purpose. The RNC also spent $8.8 million in coordinated expenditures with state parties that year, although Democrats ultimately won 31 House seats and six Senate seats on their way to recapturing control of Congress.
To fill the perceived void, Republicans are looking to a handful of third-party groups, including American Crossroads, a privately funded Washington, D.C.-based organization whose board is chaired by Mike Duncan, Steele’s predecessor at the RNC. The group’s president, Steven Law, served as chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the 1990s, and was the NRSC executive director for the 1998 and 2000 cycles, during McConnell’s chairmanship.
Carl Forti, who served as NRCC communications director during the 2006 cycle and ran the committee’s independent expenditure program, is American Crossroads’ political director. Last Friday, the organization announced its intention to run ground game operations in eight states where there is an overlap of House and Senate races targeted by the NRCC and NRSC, including Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire and Washington State.
The group’s GOTV plan is focused on low-, medium- and high-propensity Republican voters and high-propensity independents, with an emphasis on tracking and encouraging absentee voters, while using mail and telephone advertising to encourage GOP voter turnout. American Crossroads also plans a mail and phone turn-out effort for the final three days of the fall campaign, which is modeled at least in part after the RNC’s “72 Hour” program.
The organization’s efforts do not include a component for knocking on doors or for putting boots on the ground. American Crossroads made its plans public so that state Republican parties in targeted states could maximize their resources and plan accordingly, such as focusing on door-to-door, person-to-person GOTV activities.
One Republican operative, discussing what they believe is a lackluster RNC, described the GOTV operations planned by American Crossroads as “something that otherwise won’t get done. This would go unfulfilled if they didn’t step up.”
Top Democratic strategists felt similarly about the DNC’s ability to get the job done in 2006. Democratic donors, particularly the high-dollar contributors, shunned the DNC in favor of the DCCC and the DSCC, with Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), then the DSCC Chairman, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, then the DCCC Chairman, collaborating to construct their own ground game effort from scratch.
In particular, the DSCC spent more than $20 million to create its own voter rolls in states with targeted Senate races and fund GOTV operations. The committee spent coordinated funds to place press and field staff in various state parties that were dedicated to working on the Senate race. In those states where the DCCC was targeting House races, the two committees coordinated their efforts.
One Democratic operative, recalling the effort, said the DNC, via Dean’s 50-state program, was sending money to every state party, rather than focusing on those states with an abundance of competitive House races and a winnable Senate race. “He was spreading money to all of the states, but that wasn’t strategic,” the Democratic operative said. “It was a program for show.”